Rafik Hariri’s death is to many Lebanese what the JFK assassination was to Americans four decades earlier – everyone remembers what they were doing when the news broke.
On Valentine’s Day 2005, the former Prime Minister who embodied the reconstruction of the country after the 1975-1990 civil war was killed in a monster bomb attack on his convoy.
The explosion set off a fireball in the downtown Beirut hotel district, hurling debris into the sky and shattering windows within a radius of nearly half a kilometer (500 meters).
A suicide bomber in a white Mitsubishi truck loaded with two tons of a powerful military explosive called RDX had positioned himself strategically, awaiting Hariri’s procession.
He detonated his charge at 12:55 a.m., a fraction of a second after the third car of the convoy, a Mercedes S600, which Hariri was driving, passed by.
All of Beirut heard or felt the explosion. Many believed that an earthquake had struck. The burning crater carved out by the explosion measured 10 meters in diameter.
A body was found 17 days after the explosion, such was the devastation caused by the attack which left 226 injured.
The country soon discovered that among the 22 dead was the man whose stature at home and abroad had earned him the nickname “Mr. Lebanon ».
The unthinkable had just happened.
Hariri was no longer prime minister at the time, but was still the dominant political figure in the country and was largely inclined to take up the post again in future polls.
The assassination was not entirely a surprise, however, and there had been warnings since Hariri had presented himself as the spearhead of a campaign to end Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.
Earlier in February of that year, his friend then French President Jacques Chirac, then UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen had pleaded with Hariri to stay low.
Among other worrying signs, his friend and former minister Marwan Hamade narrowly survived a similar attack on his convoy in October 2004.
Fifteen years after the end of the civil war, Hariri’s assassination has become the turning point in Lebanon’s post-conflict history.
The public reaction to his murder precipitated the departure of the Syrian forces that had occupied the country for three decades.
This in turn gave Hezbollah, a key suspect in the assassination of the Sunni Muslim leader, a chance to grow and fill the void.
The Shiite movement is an organization whose firepower rivals that of the Lebanese military and has since evolved to dominate the country’s political life as well.
Some of the buildings left standing in the seaside area where the February 14 bomb detonated still bear the marks of the explosion.
Hariri supporters continue to visit the site, where a statue of the slain corpulent leader has been erected.
© 2020 AFP